Senior Soaring Championship 2018

By Richard Owen, photos by Bo Michalowski (ground) and Ben Johnson (air-to-air)

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Starting in mid November, the exodus of snowbirds making their annual journey to the southern part of the states begins.  We in Florida always look forward to seeing our friends from the frozen north. Even when we feel our skin tone is white as snow, we are bronze warriors compared to the returning pilots.  This year we had a slow start to the year until February. Each week the temperatures and cloud bases got higher, days were short but the flights kept getting longer. In 10 days Dave Springford flew over 2,600km and could have flown further each day.  Too bad he was using my ship!

In March, a large collection of soaring-hungry pilots had again assembled at Seminole Lake Gliderport in central Florida for the 28th Annual Senior Soaring Championship. A week or so before, weather in Florida was everything the Chamber of Commerce – and glider pilots – could wish. Temperatures were in the 80s, lofty cumulus clouds and first-rate thermal conditions prevailed. As our contest began, things changed a bit: there were stretches of severely blue skies, cool (some would say downright cold) temperatures, and lift that struggled to reach 3500’. This is, of course, much better than the rest of the nation can claim, and most were happy with that.

As has been the case almost since it began, this was once again an oversubscribed contest. A number of prospective entrants had to cancel for conditions related to weather (both west and east), but pilots on a long waiting list had stepped in to fill their places.  Pete Alexander was at the convention showing his magnificent ASG-32 when a snowstorm hit the Reno area closing the pass back to his house. Unfortunately, he was flying his ASG-29 in the contest and was unable to make the trip east.

Of the 61 regular entrants, fully 25 were flying motorized gliders. Included were jet engines that were heard running in the early part of the day.  It created an interesting noise not traditionally associated with the sport that used to be described as “silent flight”.

The practice day was cold with some cu, and with a dose of optimism we were able to have a 2-hour task that saw 10 completions. No one achieved any impressive speed – best was Fernando Silva (2017 Senior Contest champion) at just over 46 mph.

Our first official contest day was forecasted to have an airmass that was rated as good to excellent.  At one point it was predicted to produce cumulus clouds, lift to 6000’ and good task speeds. But a much thicker than forecast band of mid-level clouds arrived by launch time, severely limiting the sun’s heating and spoiling the party.  Under depressingly gray skies we were actually able to launch the whole fleet (60+ gliders) and most were able to stay aloft, occasionally reaching 4000’ in weak lift. But the weather trend was obviously downward and by 2pm it was clear that even a short task would entail crowded thermals, many outlandings and a dubious chance of a valid day. Accordingly, the task was very wisely cancelled.  Some pilots decided to attempt the task anyway. This produced no completions, three outlandings and several motorglider engine runs. It was a CD’s wish come true and John Good told us exactly that at the pilot’s meeting the next day! One of the early nominations for the “Uff Da” award (Norwegian for oops or words to that effect) occurred on this day. After a pilot landed out, our young ground crew volunteered to recover the crewless aviator and the he told them where to find the trailer.  Unfortunately, the trailer did not have ID on the tail fin but a wing dolly with the contestants correct ID was found in the trailer. Upon arriving at the landout site, it was discovered it wasn’t the correct trailer. Even funnier was when the owner of said trailer returned, he found a conspicuously empty spot at his former parking location.

The competitors gathered in the hangar that evening for another outstanding Italian dinner from Calabria Ristorante.  We were also treated to some outstanding guitar music played by our local musician Ms. Jane Rosenbohm. Everyone enjoyed her skill, playing all genres of music.  Everyone was pleasantly surprised to find out she is also a glider pilot at Seminole-Lake Gliderport.

Our Co-Contest Managers were smiling when several beers were brought to the dinner to pay off fines incurred during the day.  A new rule for the Seniors was enacted at the pilot meeting which fined pilots one beer if they asked either of the CM’s for information contained in the pilot kit!  It did not take long before pilots were reading all the notes and information contained in those seldom read documents. Maybe we started a trend!

For the second attempt of the first contest day, the consensus was that the weather would not support soaring.  We were told to expect clouds and rain. It was suggested that today should have been set as the official rest day (the Senior Contest always has one, which by rule must be pre-declared).  We decided to wait and see, and a very different face of things was seen in the morning: mostly clear skies and bright sun. The forecast called for plentiful cumulus clouds at low altitudes, producing a very useful soaring day ahead of a frontal passage.

And so, it proved true. The cu was a bit too plentiful, producing some overdevelopment and a need for “gear-shifting” by pilots. On a 2-hour task to the north, most struggled a bit, and a dozen either outlanded or started their engines. But the majority completed the task. SSA Chairman Ken Sorenson was best by some 60 points, with 63 mph over a 131-mile course.  He was also the first pilot to take advantage of the rule change that allowed starting out of the rear of the start cylinder. A fine flight by a former Seniors winner.

At the Seniors, it’s called the “Crew Day,” because it is chosen by the crews, in consultation with the Contest Manager.  They try to pick a day with sub-par weather, but there is no guarantee that the forecast and what occurs in reality is the same.  A frontal passage coincided with the crews’ wishes, so it all worked out for the best. The quilting group was especially happy as Monday coincided with the weekly quilters meeting and featured an out and return to the local fabric store.

It was pretty quiet at the gliderport all day, maybe with the exception of the ground crew and tow pilots.  Seems like the ground crew all went bowling for some spirited competition themselves. The tow pilots all retired to the house of Franklin Burbank where they played a video game that required players to flap their arms like wings.  Too bad no one took videos! Everyone got back in time for the catered chicken-and-ribs dinner from the Oakwood Grill, followed by the US Team report, fund raiser and ice cream social.

In Florida, the passage of a cold front has different implications for soaring than in locations further north. It will reliably be cold (in this case, with overnight temperatures near freezing). But by the time it marches this far south, the “wedge” of cold air is thin, with a strong temperature inversion above. The result is a severely blue day with weak lift to very modest altitudes.

Spotted during the noon, front-of-the-grid pilot meeting were two Swallow-Tailed Kites, welcoming the local residents who typically set up housekeeping near the gliderport around this time of year. In terms of visual elegance and soaring skill, these birds have few peers anywhere: in the few minutes they were in view, neither climbed much above treetop height, circled, or flapped once.

That is what the day brought, where a good thermal was 2 kts to not much over 3000 ft. But lift was there, and with the many airfields in our task area, a 2-hour task was possible and about 90% of the pilots who attempted it got around. Best was local guru Rich Owen, with 48 mph over 107 miles.

During today’s pilots meeting it was pointed out that Virginia would always follow the announcement for RV black water dumping with an announcement regarding tonight’s dinner.  Of course, the Contest Manager could never be a nominee for the Uff Da award.

The second day after a Florida cold front is typically much better than the first, and so it proved today. We were told to expect lift to 4000 ft (whereas pilots were very happy after 3500 ft cloud bases from yesterday). During the task, pilots often did better than that, and some reported good climbs to over 5000 ft.

Which is not to say it was trouble-free. Lift was again entirely blue and seemed to arrange itself in lines that were hard to predict or to follow. Nearly everyone struggled at times, and enough either outlanded, came home early, or started their engines to yield a day that wasn’t quite worth a full 1000 points.

Best for the day was Bill Gawthrop (hailing from northern California, he also takes the “longest journey” prize) who managed a highly commendable 57.5 mph over a task of 132 miles. Second for the day and now first overall is John Seymour (being a disciple of Kai Gertsen, it’s no surprise to see him prosper on weak days). But with two days to go, 7 pilots stand within 100 points of first place, so the final outcome was still much in doubt.

The evening brought another fine dinner by the crew from the Red Wing restaurant but a special treat was in store during the desert course.  Betty and Evert Williston were at dinner with us and shared the beginnings of the gliderport which started its life under their ownership exactly 50 years ago.  The Flying Seminole Ranch first came into existence on the north east side of Orlando. Betty was the tow pilot, Evert the CFI-G and the FBO manager was the DPE.  Their meager fleet consisted of a PA-12 and Schweitzer 2-22. Later, Evert became the first Grob dealer in the United States. A TV report from the early 1970’s was also shown that highlighted a glider contest that was run from the “ranch”.  Everyone got a kick out of the vintage sailplanes, haircuts, short shorts and comments from the pilots to the reporter. Betty and Evert also had a great time seeing old friends and sharing in a contest environment again.

In central Florida in early March, the unhabituated visitor can still detect the distinctive and notably pleasant scent of orange blossoms. But this is a passing thing, in the process of fading away entirely. Over 30 years ago this area was prime commercial orange grove territory. A trend toward an increasing number of frost days in winter had driven orange growers to the southern reaches of this state. Now, the old groves are largely abandoned and slowly give way to housing developments resulting in fewer blossoms emerging every year.

Recent weather at Seminole Lake Gliderport reflected this weather trend. This fourth contest day morning was the third straight day of thick frost on wings and windshields, during what most reckon to be, the coldest Senior Contest ever. This was the third day after the passage of a large cold front, and it did indeed warm up a bit.  However, it was uncharacteristically something of a step down from the previous day, offering another severely blue day and a reasonable soaring task only to pilots willing to struggle a bit. The only bright spot on the grid was the look on Dennis Linnekin’s face when, while putting on his chute, he happened to do an unexpected operational test of his equipment!

Our ground crew, led by Operations Boss Catherine Eaglin who just turned 21 years old, was on a roll by now setting a new Seniors record by getting 61 ships in the air in 48 minutes.   When the pilots returned and scores were turned in, once again, the best result was turned in by local favorite Rich Owen, who did 52 mph over a course of 109 miles. With one day to go, this puts him in first place overall, by some 57 points. Within 100 points is a formidable group consisting of Fernando Silva, Ken Sorenson, Doug Jacobs and John Seymour. Tomorrow’s forecast is for more blue conditions, higher temperatures and some hard racing.

The last contest day brought us the fourth straight hard frost in central Florida for the week.  By using a credit card, you could easily scrape enough rime ice from any wing for a snowball fight. Fortunately, the sun was bright and by launch time delivered temperatures in the low 70s, good for moderate lift to over 3000 ft. By the end of the day, we were in shirt sleeves with temperatures in the high 70s, and pilots were frequently climbing to over 4000 ft in very good lift.

As everyone was putting their ships in the box for the return home, many were wondering who would win this year’s Seniors.  A stop by the Scoring desk was met with silence. Rick Sheppe guarded the results from prying eyes and refused many bribes of adult beverages. You see, we always announce the daily winners and the overall standings at the banquet.  The Mission Inn and Golf Resort is a proper setting for this celebration. Perched on the edge of a lake, the sun always goes down in the right place for this picture-perfect venue. With the expert help of Riki Tukosky, the food set up, meal choice, and decorations were outstanding.  She has been the driving force for almost all of our banquets at Mission Inn and we hope to have her expertise again next year.

Virginia Thompson did another outstanding job emceeing the festivities, holding everyone in suspense till the end. After thanking the office staff of Mihaela, Sue and Barry for all of their hard work she acknowledged the many volunteers who made the contest great. Virginia especially thanked the group of volunteers who work tirelessly all year round and help make Seminole Lake a great place to fly and a facility we can be proud of.

She recognized the superb, safe and efficient task calling of our CD, John Good, who received a well-deserved standing ovation.  Rick Sheppe also received thunderous applause for his work as our scorer. She gave out the “Uff Da” award which was won by Fernando Silva, who after having a great race, told the Scorer he had smoked them all and deposited his cell phone in the logger box and left the area.  In a unique show of the quality of competitors in this group, Virginia asked if any pilot had won the World Gliding Championship to stand up. Doug Jacobs kindly complied. Then she went with the same request for those who had won a Nationals, or Regional contest to stand. By the end, over half of the pilots were standing.

Virginia broke with tradition when she announced the overall winners verses the daily winners.  No one guessed her devious plan was to set the stage for the big announcement. As the list was whittled down to the top three, no one could guess the winner.  Only 58 points separated these pilots going into the last day. Doug Jacobs was announced in third place and Fernando Silva took second overall. Rich Owen had defended his first-place position in the best way possible, with a day win at 56 mph over a course of 112 miles.

Soaring conditions for this Seniors were bluer and weaker than most would have wished, but we finished with 5 contest days, around 300 launches, and a total of cross-country soaring miles probably in excess of 20,000.  I expect most pilots are planning to be back in 2019, possibly equipped with more warm clothing than they brought in 2018. We had several first-time pilots at the Seniors but we always love having Don Wasness in the field since he has made all of our 28 events and won the inaugural contest.  Stay safe, fly well and enjoy the rest of the competitive season. See you next year at the Seniors!